Demosthenes Spiropoulos

Movie Mumblings:
Ghost in the Shell

September 10, 2018 - Volume 3, Issue 22

Before we begin the Mumblings, here are some tidbits we need to get out of the way first.

1) I am a huge Ghost in the Shell fanboy. I enjoyed the original animated movie, and really loved both Stand Alone Complex animated television series. Even had the opportunity to interview the English voice actor for the Major, Mary E. McGlynn, when I working an Anime Expo forever ago. This may or may not skew the opinions below.

2) The original animated Ghost in the Shell movie is different from the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex series, and they are both different from the new Ghost in the Shell: Arise mini-series. I mention this because while each version features the same cast of characters (more or less), they are all independent of each other. They are not continuations, but more like mini-reboots. So it's safe to assume that despite the same ingredients, the movie will diverge from the source (and we should be ok with this).

3) Yes, I will discuss the whitewashing. But let's try to enjoy and discuss the movie on its own first.

4) Yes, I know this review comes over a year from when the movie was first released. Deal with it. Also, I wrote this back in June and just now got it posted. Again, deal with it.

Let's begin.

I will try to be as spoiler free as possible. With that said, if you've seen the original animated movie, as well as Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex - 2nd GIG, you already know how this movie will play out.

This live-action version is a pretty much a retelling of the animated version, adding in Hideo Kuze from 2nd GIG in a role that stands in for the Puppet Master role, with some original concepts thrown in. So in a sense, spoiler-free, but not really. Sorry.

Here are some rapid-fire thoughts...

-There are so many scenes that are recreated from the animated version, it stops being an homage and almost turns into outright plagiarism. When Disney did a live-action version of the Beauty & the Beast, it was the same story but told differently. Sure, it had to hit the same checkpoints, but you almost can't compare it and the original animated version. With Ghost in the Shell, the scene-for-scene recreation almost makes you wonder why they are even bothering to make this movie. Almost.

Was this shot important? No. They just recreated a shot from the animated film for no reason.

-It is very beautiful to look at. The world they create is loud and visual and in your face, as it should be. The only reason you can not appreciate it more is because it looks like the production crew stole entire set pieces from the original Blade Runner movie.

-The movie is ridiculously slow paced. It spends way too much setting up the world they are in, and leaves the climax almost underwhelming. Almost. There some actions scenes to break up the monotony, but they weren't exactly "action-packed." To be fair, the ending was very good, but you wish more of that was in the first three quarters of the film. It's like spending 90 minutes setting up a domino chain, tipping over that starting domino, and then you watch in delight as everything finishes in 45 seconds. While cool, the reward may or may not be worth that huge initial effort.

-The movie has a wide array of characters. Or so I'm told, as you wouldn't actually know that by watching the film. The Major receives most of the character development (rightfully so), but all the other characters could have been replaced with canned hams and you wouldn't notice. Hell, the credits tell me Bouma was in this film, but I didn't see him. Poor Saito had only three words of dialogue.

This fun little shot was the end of the film to remind you there was actually a Section 9. Though "Batou and the Canned Hams" is a great band name.

-This movie is one of those films where if you know the source material, you can find a lot of enjoyment in it; but if you're coming in blind, it may fail to connect. And judging by the reviews, it failed to connect with a lot of people. Admittedly, cyberpunk isn't for everyone. (This is sounding like my Assassin's Creed mumblings).

-In all honesty (and this will set off some of the more hardcore fanboys), I can not say that the original animated version was better. While a seminal piece of sci-fi and cyberpunk, it wasn't overly awesome. It did suffer from similarly slow pacing, and did have a lot of things left unexplained if you were unfamiliar with the original manga. But, it was fresh and new, and the story of what is real and what is fake while trying to understand what it means to be a person in a connected world really resonated with fans (like me). The live-action version tried to capture that, but they force that message into this movie so blatantly that's it distracting. Seriously, you didn't need to spend 2 minutes explaining what a ghost or a shell is. We got it, and if we didn't, it shouldn't take anyone long to figure it out.

-This movie reminds me of the review I did for Tron: Legacy. While I felt it could have been better, it is actually better than what we could have hoped for. A tidy little contradiction for a movie with a character who's unsure of who she is.

With all this said, how would I rate this movie? Judging from critiques, you could assume I didn't like it. But actually, I liked it quite a bit. You can still point out some issues while still loving it (you just shouldn't get to a Last Jedi level of vitriol). Was it a perfect movie? No. Would I buy it on DVD? Probably. It is a good movie to blow two hours on and sucked down a tub of popcorn? Yes.

UPDATE: I watched this film back in June, and I felt I should watch it again before posting these mumblings... three months later (I still had the Netflix DVD). On a second viewing, I found the movie to be more enjoyable. I found myself NOT comparing it to anything and just enjoying the movie on its own. As a futuristic cyberpunk thriller, it was actually quite decent. The lack of tachikomas really hinder this movie though. ;-)

On a scale of 1-4 Tachikomas (which were not in the film), Ghost in the Shell gets...

No, I didn't forget. Let's talk whitewashing.

Tom Sawyer

Naturally, since this is coming from me, this will be a finely nuanced response. Especially since I both agree and disagree with the claims of whitewashing. I'll break it down into three levels.

The first level is for roles in the film where I find myself OK with the casting choices. Feel free to disagree, but at least here me out.

Scarlett Johansson as the Major.
I am OK with this casting choice. Yes, in the animated movies and series, all the characters are Japanese (or at the very least, Asian), so most believed a Japanese actress should have played the role. I don't disagree, but if there was going to be a non-Asian in the role, there was only one person that could have played the part... Scarlett Johansson. First, she's playing a synthetic body, and if you have the opportunity to make a cyborg look like anyone, you can't go wrong with ScarJo. From a show biz standpoint, she's a bona fide movie star and draw, and brings believability to the role as an asskicker based on previous films she's been in. Mamoru Oshii, the Japanese director of the original Ghost in the Shell, even gave her his blessing and said "I believe having Scarlett play Motoko was the best possible casting for this movie." Again, I'm OK with this choice.

Peter Ferdinando as Cutter
You want the antagonist to be a white guy in charge of an huge corporation operating in Asia? I'm OK with this. The character could have been played by any actor, but this role didn't need to be Asian. In fact, making the bad guy white is probably the least offensive thing a casting director can do nowadays.

Juliette Binoche as Dr. Ouelet
A multi-national corporation could have brought in a French scientist to their Asian headquarters to work. Juliette Binoche also brings in a bit of name recognition. This works from a story standpoint, and again, I'm OK with this. Could this character have been Asian? Yes. Did it need to be? No.

The second level is where things get iffy on casting choices, and some of these may not hold up to closer scrutiny.

Pilou Asbaek as Batou
Animated, Batou was Japanese and served with the Japanese Army Rangers. Live, Batou is played by beefy Dane, Pilou Asbaek. With that said, I absolutely loved his portrayal of Batou. I felt he was as close to the original as they could have gotten. I was sold on the idea that he was Batou. I believed it. If you are on board with the spirit of colorblind casting, then they nailed it with this pick. But if you have concerns with whitewashing, Batou is where things start to pick up steam.

Michael Pitt as Kuze
Yes, he's playing a synthetic body as well, but he really didn't need to be a white guy. It's an iffy choice because (not to reveal spoilers) it sort of works for him to be white. But this could have gone to an Asian without too much fuss. In fact, the more I think about, the more I think he really should have been Asian. Ok, the wheel are staring to come off now.

Lasarus Ratuere as Ishikawa
With Batou being Danish, the idea may have been to make Section 9 a multi-cultural and woke paramilitary unit to help justify that casting choice. It's the only reason I can think of why Ishikawa is black here. If we're trying to be inclusive, I could be OK with this. However, his role was so negligible that, like I mentioned above, he could have been replaced with a canned ham and not affect his impact in the movie. Iffy casting.

Danusia Samal as Ladriya
Again, if the goal was to make Section 9 more multi-cultural, this choice could make sense. Her ethnic ambiguity allows her Kurdish/Polish roots to come across as Latina-ish. Sorta, kinda. Fun fact, this character is original and created just for the movie. There's no denying that in the animated versions, Section 9 is a bit of a sausage fest, so a lady character was introduced. But could this lady character have been Asian? Probably. Should she have been Asian? More than probably. Again, iffy casting.

Quick tangent while we are on Section 9... why was Aramaki and Saito (who thankfully were both Japanese) only speaking in Japanese while everyone else was speaking English. It's almost like they were trying to highlight they were Japanese. It really made no damn sense... to me, at least.

The last level is where poor casting choices were made and whitewashing does seem obvious.


Dr. Dahlin? Should have been Asian.
Every other Hanka employee? Should have been Asian.
The trash truck drivers? Should have been Asian.
The bartender? Should have been Asian (and not have me guessing if that was Danny Trejo... it wasn't)

I understand that maybe the big roles end up in the hands of big actors. Fine, I know how Hollywood works. I also understand that maybe you want the supporting characters to appear to be an inclusive bunch. Iffy, but I'll play your little game. But for the background characters in an unnamed, but clearly Asian city to not be... you know... Asian, well, that is when you start to appear tone-deaf and start shooting yourself in the foot.

Yes, I also understand that most of the movie was filmed in New Zealand and a lot of these bit players or background extras were probably Kiwis picked up from off the street. But they also filmed in China, and suddenly, the excuses start to crumble. Seriously though... be better. You're asking me to believe something fantastical on screen. I'll do that, but make the "real" parts... real. At least meet me halfway.

I don't know if the characters on the list, from Kuze on down, being played by Asians actors would have helped this movie, but it would have negated much of the backlash. Preventable, unneeded backlash.

Thanks for visiting. Love, Demosthenes Spiropoulos